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October 2, 2011


Irish poet Michael O’Dea

“1999 I wrote a series of poems called Tuol Sleng Still. They were inspired by the gut-wrenching photographs of the inmates of Tuol Sleng, S-21, a Khmer Rouge death-camp in Phnom Penh. Between 1975 and 1979, 14,000 were tortured and died there. 7 survived. Inmates were photographed with numbered tags, and they were photographed again after their deaths.

Anyone who has experienced such horrors would probably consider my poems from the comfort of 1999 Ireland wryly. I was horrified by my ignorance: during those years I was enjoying a carefree college life. But to see the fear in faces that are little different to those that fill my everyday; I immediately felt immense sadness and felt I should, at least, inform myself. And by researching, writing and publishing the poems I could at least make the experience more real to me and contribute in a minute way to the calls against the wars and barbarism that seem to me to exemplify the pitiful limitations of us humans.

I chose Tuol Sleng because the photographs that inspired me were from there. There is a danger that I will suggest that people from far-off lands with different features to ours are barbaric, however I consider the vacuum-pack cleanliness of American mass-murder by air-strike at least as obscene, if not more so. I consider the war in the Middle East carried out and supported by governments in our name to be abhorrent. That era in the seventies is and isn’t history: unfortunately, for too many around the world it is Tuol Sleng still.”

I looked at him,
Cambodian like myself,
similar in height and age.
He was handing out the tags;
I was bare to the waist.

I held the tag in my hand,
holding it up to be seen;
feeling awkward, conspicuous.
“Pin it onto your chest”
he said and waited.

I pinned it into my skin;
the humiliation delighted him.
Before the camera I stood erect
like I was proud to wear it,
like it was made of gold.

The Tuol Sleng GenocideMuseum  is a museum in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.The site is a former high  school  which was used as the notorious Security Prison 21 (S-21) by the Khmer Rouge, communist regime from its rise to power in 1975 to its fall in 1979. Tuol Sleng (Khmer), means “Hill of the Poisonous Trees” or  “strychnine Hill.”

Formerly the Chao Ponhea Yat High School,[1] named after a Royal ancestor of King Norodom Sihanouk the five buildings of the complex were converted in August 1975, four months after the Khmer Rouge won the civil war,into a prison and interrogation center. The Khmer Rouge renamed the complex “Security Prison 21″ (S-21) and construction began to adapt the prison to the inmates: the buildings were enclosed in electrified barbed wire, the classrooms converted into tiny prison and torture chambers, and all windows were covered with iron bars and barbed wire to prevent escapes.

From 1975 to 1979, an estimated 17,000 people were imprisoned at Tuol Sleng (some estimates suggest a number as high as 20,000, although the real number is unknown). At any one time, the prison held between 1,000–1,500 prisoners. They were repeatedly tortured and coerced into naming family members and close associates, who were in turn arrested, tortured and killed. In the early months of S-21′s existence, most of the victims were from the previous Lon Nol regime and included soldiers, government officials, as well as academics, doctors, teachers, students, factory workers, monks, engineers, etc. Later, the party leadership’s paranoia turned on its own ranks and purges throughout the country saw thousands of party activists and their families brought to Tuol Sleng and murdered.Those arrested included some of the highest ranking communist politicians such as Khoy Thoum,  Vorn Vet and Hu Nim. Although the official reason for their arrest was “espionage”, these men may have been viewed by Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot as potential leaders of a coup against him. Prisoners’ families were often brought en masse to be interrogated and later murdered at the Choeung Ek, extermination center.

In 1979, the prison was uncovered by the invading Vietnamese army. In 1980, the prison was reopened by the government of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, as a historical museum memorializing the actions of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Choeung Ek
, the site of a former orchard and Chinese graveyard about 17 km south of Phnom Penh,  is the best-known of the sites known as The killing Fields, where the Where the Khmer Rpuge regime executed about 17,000 people between 1975 and 1979. Mass graves containing 8,895 bodies were discovered at Choeung Ek after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. Many of the dead were former inmates in the Tuol Sleng prison.

Today, Choeung Ek is a memorial, marked by a Buddhist Stupa. The stupa has acrylic glass  sides and is filled with more than 5,000 human skulls. Some of the lower levels are opened during the day so that the skulls can be seen directly. Many have been shattered or smashed in.

Tourists are encouraged by the Cambodian government to visit Choeung Ek. Apart from the stupa, there are pits from which the bodies were exhumed. Human bones still litter the site.

On May 3, 2005, the Municipality of Phnom Penh announced that they had entered into a 30-year agreement with JC Royal Co. to develop the memorial at Choeung Ek. As part of the agreement, they are not to disturb the remains still present in the field.








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